Background: Evidence is accumulating that pesticide self-poisoning is one of the most commonly used methods of suicide worldwide, but the magnitude of the problem and the global distribution of these deaths is unknown.
Methods: We have systematically reviewed the worldwide literature to estimate the number of pesticide suicides in each of the World Health Organisation's six regions and the global burden of fatal self-poisoning with pesticides. We used the following data sources: Medline, EMBASE and psycINFO (1990-2007), papers cited in publications retrieved, the worldwide web (using Google) and our personal collections of papers and books. Our aim was to identify papers enabling us to estimate the proportion of a country's suicides due to pesticide self-poisoning.
Results: We conservatively estimate that there are 258,234 (plausible range 233,997 to 325,907) deaths from pesticide self-poisoning worldwide each year, accounting for 30% (range 27% to 37%) of suicides globally. Official data from India probably underestimate the incidence of suicides; applying evidence-based corrections to India's official data, our estimate for world suicides using pesticides increases to 371,594 (range 347,357 to 439,267). The proportion of all suicides using pesticides varies from 4% in the European Region to over 50% in the Western Pacific Region but this proportion is not concordant with the volume of pesticides sold in each region; it is the pattern of pesticide use and the toxicity of the products, not the quantity used, that influences the likelihood they will be used in acts of fatal self-harm.
Conclusion: Pesticide self-poisoning accounts for about one-third of the world's suicides. Epidemiological and toxicological data suggest that many of these deaths might be prevented if (a) the use of pesticides most toxic to humans was restricted, (b) pesticides could be safely stored in rural communities, and (c) the accessibility and quality of care for poisoning could be improved.